Monday, November 23, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Reporter’s Notebook: Semiconductors & Bible bids

A tech company, a City Council and love… Freescale Semiconductor, which joined Samsung Austin Semiconductor on Nov. 13 in rejecting the contract terms of a special new Austin Energy tariff created by City Council the day before, received a nomination from that same Council on Thursday for a special state designation as an Enterprise Zone Project. If approved, such a designation would make Freescale eligible for a refund of state sales and use tax, projected at $1,250,000 over a five-year period, based on employment and spending data. The measure passed on an 8-1 vote, with Council Member Don Zimmerman voting no, Council Member Ora Houston abstaining and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo absent. A city staff document explaining the request reads that “the company qualifies for a designation because of a planned investment at the business site located within the City and the retention of jobs.” Before the vote, Houston raised concerns about what might occur if Freescale were to be bought out by another company. “I have information that another company outside of the United States is thinking about purchasing them,” she said. Zimmerman, despite professing that he has strong feelings for the company and its peers, said he would stick with his principles. “I absolutely love high-tech companies – semiconductor companies, love ’em – and I hate subsidies,” he said. “On principle, I’m going to be voting against this simply because I don’t think the subsidies are sustainable, and they end up setting a policy of picking winners and losers because the subsidies awarded to Freescale or whoever it might be have to come at the expense of other, smaller companies and taxpayers,” he continued. “But I love Freescale.”

Water bill brainstorms continue… Over at the City Council Public Utilities Committee, Council members continued to work on the problem of some residents’ suddenly high water bills. Under the aegis of providing a “safety net” for people who receive high water bills and don’t agree with the reflected usage, Council Member Ellen Troxclair proposed capping or “cushioning” bills reflecting significantly higher water usage than residents have used in the past. Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros worked to come up with some solutions on the fly but noted that the idea presented some immediate problems, saying, “In the end, you have a meter and water that passes through the meter. How can the utility determine which water passed through the meter and should be billed, and which water passed through the meter and the customer didn’t mean for that to happen? How do you avoid being arbitrary and capricious about those approaches? You want to put staff in the position where they are making value judgments on what use is OK and what wasn’t.” Troxclair said that was not her intent. She said she would be working on crafting a “safety net resolution” and hoped Meszaros would help her come up with ideas for some relief. She explained, “I don’t think the purpose of the tiered-rate structure was to punish a senior citizen living alone on a fixed income who got an unusually high bill,” said Troxclair. “It really breaks my heart when I, you know, talk to an elderly woman who is going to be on a payment plan for the next year.” Meszaros said that both billing and meter-reading audits were in the works and expected to have preliminary results from those audits at the December meeting of the Public Utilities Committee, and complete results by January. Additionally, the utility has been performing its own irrigation audits at the request of customers and, at the time of the meeting, had performed over 250, with 126 scheduled in December.

Blank space… Though City Council opted to postpone renaming of the Austin Tennis Center until a firm naming policy for such things is established, that didn’t stop Council Member Don Zimmerman from complaining about the “blank” resolution attached to the item. “I thought we agreed that we would just not have this kind of thing on the consent agenda anymore,” said Zimmerman. “It’s got a blank here with consent. The implication if we had just voted and put it through on consent, then, I guess, would legally the tennis center be renamed open (quotation marks)? I wish we would clean this up.” Though Mayor Steve Adler responded with a brief “I understand,” the Austin Monitor remains perplexed and sympathetic to the dilemma of those drafting a resolution that could be passed with a number of names for the center, at the discretion of Council.

Unrelated, but related?… Last week attorney Jimmy Nassour popped up in our story about a piece of city land that the city, apparently, can no longer afford to buy from itself. Nassour bid $1.4 million on the Winnebago Lane property. Research by our intrepid copy editor revealed that Nassour’s bids have been in the news before, in fact making national headlines. A 1999 article from The New York Times describes Nassour’s winning bid of $2,000 for a Bible that once belonged to atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the self-described “most hated woman in America.” She had been missing for four years at that time and was later discovered to have been murdered by convicted felon David R. Waters.

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook comes from the notebooks of Tyler Whitson and Elizabeth Pagano.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

Austin City Council Public Utility Committee: A City Council committee that reviews issues related to water and drainage utilities.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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